Some stories in the Bible have struck me as unfair, and at times I have found myself sympathizing with the “bad guy.” Take for example the parable of the three servants who received money from their master to invest while he was gone (Matthew 25:14-30). I can relate to the last servant who was given only one bag of money, compared to the other servants, with one receiving two and the other five. Of course he felt less important than the other two as well as unmotivated, feeling he could never be equal with them. And then the master treated the single-bag servant so harshly. In another version of the story, the master took the one bag of silver from the chastised servant and gave it to the one who already had 10 (Luke 19:11-27)! Unfair! Unfair!
I have, however, come to appreciate the lessons from this parable (like the consequences of comparing myself with others). Yet I’m still uncomfortable with how my natural sense of fairness is rarely affirmed in the Bible. It seems that God is more often interested in what goes on inside a person (the part others can’t see) than what is judged as right or wrong from outside observation. He sees and seeks to deal with a person at a heart level.
For No Apparent Reason
Another one that has bothered me over the years is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). The two brothers each brought gifts to the LORD as part of their worship. Cain was a farmer, and so he presented a sampling of his crops to God. Abel was a shepherd who brought a lamb. Makes sense so far. But then God responded by accepting Abel’s offering and rejecting Cain’s. Cain was angry and depressed about it. There’s no further explanation. No explicit commandment that was disobeyed. Cain became so ticked off at his younger brother that he killed him, the first murder. And while of course Cain’s response was evil, some have suggested that God provoked him. Why would God arbitrarily welcome one gift and accept another, especially when both were apparently brought as an act of worship? I have been tempted again to cry “unfair!”
I have determined that my starting point in digging deeper into questions like these must always be that God is good. I therefore presume there is more to the story than I’m seeing as an outside observer. Understanding what is going on here, however, is important because it is the first place in the Bible where worship (bringing gifts to God) is presented. And right from the beginning we’re being shown that there is worship that God accepts and there is worship that He does not accept. Knowing the difference and how God sees this could be important for a follower of Jesus.
In Hebrews 11:4 we’re told, “It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith” (NLT).
And 1 John 3:12 says, “We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous” (NLT).
Over the centuries, Bible scholars have attempted to explain why Abel and his gift were so favorably looked upon and not Cain’s. The answers have ranged all over the place: God just sovereignly chose one offering and rejected the other because He’s God. Or, one was a high-quality sacrifice and the other just random vegetables, disregarding the need for shed blood to atone for sin. And yet another reason might be that one was given with a good attitude and the other came with a rotten attitude. Which one best explains it? I really don’t know. Perhaps a combination of all three? Perhaps none?
What the New Testament writers clearly agree on, however, is that Abel was a righteous man and Cain was not. Even Jesus referred to Abel as righteous (Matthew 23:35). And this is where I think we’re provided a peek into what is the most important point in the story. Two men brought gifts to offer in worship. God saw their intentions (like only He can). Abel came with a humbly transparent, “righteous” heart open to God, trusting Him with his best. Cain came using the act of worship to cover his unrighteous, closed-off, I’ll-still-do-what-I-want-to-do heart. One was truly laying everything open before the Lord in worship. The other was going through the exterior ritual of worship but hiding a hard, unrepentant spirit and an “evil” lifestyle that he refused to acknowledge. Cain was called out, and he didn’t like it or take the opportunity to make the necessary adjustments. He went on to walk out what was brewing deep inside him. God saw what was in each man as he went through the motions of worship. And He knew what was real and what was just a cover-up.
God Sees My Heart
I can now see that this story provides a challenge to all followers of Jesus in how we approach worship. Motivation matters to God. It’s very easy to enter a corporate worship service today without checking my heart. Going through the motions and doing all the external movements that convey to an onlooker that I and the Almighty are good does not fool the Almighty. How many times have I “worshipped” and it really has not been accepted by God as true worship? And like He did with Cain, He wants to talk with me about my attitude and how He wants to help me adjust and change . . . If I’ll listen.
What is real worship? From what I can gather in the scriptures, it happens when I humbly and honestly come before my Creator, opening my heart to Him, submitting all that I am in obedience. It goes beyond entering a church building. It’s more than singing. It’s more than lifting hands. It’s more than putting money in an offering plate. It’s more than expressing myself. It’s the attitude of my heart humbly naked before Him that only He can see and know completely. Onlookers likely have no idea what’s going on between me and my Lord in the midst of real worship.
I dare say that God still dismisses “worship” that is used to cover a stony, Cain-like heart that has no intention of responding to Him. He isn’t unfair. He just calls things the way they are. God merely desires true closeness and intimacy with those He loves, whose hearts are tender and right before Him. Honesty. No pretending. He always has and He still does take worship very seriously.
(Edited and reposted from August 2, 2021)